THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT, COMMONLY CALLED PASSION SUNDAY
This fifth Sunday in Lent begins the intensity of Passiontide. On this Passion Sunday, the Sunday before Holy Week begins, the Scripture readings help to understand the meaning of Christ's death on the Cross: the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to know something of the "why" of the Passion if we want to respond to it as we should. Passion Sunday, as this day is commonly called, prepares and leads us into the sorrow of death, calling us to begin contemplating the horrible death of Christ; the climactic passion event in the drama of Good Friday.
Today we enter into a season of mourning our divine Bridegroom, putting on as it were sackcloth and ashes. The color red adorns the church, her altar, and ministers. The crosses are draped and veiled as a widow mourning her beloved; they will remain veiled as an outward sign of our inward sorrow. We veil the brilliant gold processional cross which has no corpus christi, recalling for us the death sentence under which Jesus lived until it was executed upon him so terribly at Calvary. And so our preparations begin for the coming days when the bridegroom will be taken away. Passion Sunday begins a lament, the gradual cessation of joy and an imminent confrontation with our Lord’s death. For the very idea and reality of what our Lord suffered, which is recapitulated during Holy Week, is nothing short of a mental melee and emotional assault. Passion Sunday anticipates Christ’s suffering and mysteriously draws us into it. Like a wise trail guide, points out the final destination which lay just over the next ridge, and thereby encourages his companions to keep on and finish the quest. You see, Good Friday is exactly where our Lenten journey as been headed all along. For Christ’s journey which began in a desert terminated on a Cross.
Today we are being put on notice: the suffering of our Lord is near, and as his disciples, we will suffer with him. Mother church is affording us a preview, a glimpse into what lies ahead; into Holy Week which begins one week from today on Palm Sunday as we re-enact the Messiah’s triumphal entry into the Holy City of Jerusalem, thus fulfilling Zechariah's prophecy, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” But the praise and adulations of Palm Sunday will quickly morph into evil machinations, betrayal, and finally, the horrors of Good Friday. But today, we are graciously permitted to peer into what lies ahead. It's as if we’re eavesdropping in the garden of gethsemane, overhearing the agonizing prayer and discourse between a dutiful Son and his Loving Father, and made aware of the bitter cup from which our Lord will willingly drink on Good Friday, the very mission of the Son which again was foretold by the prophets of old,
"He [was] despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:3-6)
We find even the most fleeting thought of Good Friday uncomfortable. It stirs in the belly a concoction mixed of sorrow and bewilderment; shame and guilt. The remembrance of it affects us in a profound way because, first, we again become acutely aware of just how terrible a thing that fateful Friday afternoon was, and second, (if we’re honest), we know (in the depths of the heart) that we are complicit in the thing: would we have been the nobler Roman? Or the believing Israelite? Or the vow keeping Apostle? “Lord, I will lay down my life for you”, “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.” Surely we too would have cowered away in tears at the sounding of the crow. And even now, as those who have been graciously forgiven by the boundless mercy of God, the memory of Good Friday haunts the corridors of the soul and disturbs the conscience.
In our day, much of popular piety proceeds to review Holy Week historically; it pictures with great fidelity the various scenes of the "bitter passion," it dissects all the feelings and thoughts of our suffering Savior, it analyzes the virtues displayed by the Lord at every step. "How shall I imitate Him… what can I learn from Him?" are its most important questions. We find in the Suffering Servant, the Lord Jesus, a great motive for personal amendment: "He died on the Cross for me, and I have offended Him so deeply." Thus, there is a tendency for Paschal Mystery spirituality to devolve into seeking its end in self. The ancient Christians followed a different course. Of course, it also put Christ’s suffering up front but it was aiming too at the purpose of the Passion. It ascends to the contemplation of Christ first, and in doing so, revels in the realities afforded to us: in other words, “what He’s done”, not, “what I could do differently or better.” By His suffering, Christ redeemed and made us children of God. And, on approaching the most tragic day of the whole year, on Good Friday, the early Christians were not so eager to speak of the bitter passion but of the beata passio, the happy or blessed passion.
For Mother Church has declared the dark climax of our Lord’s Passion to be good: Good Friday. On that good day, the great Sacrifice of the High Priest was offered as a once-for-all atoning offering for the sins of the whole world. In the midst of sorrow and death, the Great High Priest showed himself to be both perfect Sacrifice and the perfect Sacrificer! All of the sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament had a single purpose: to point to Jesus Christ on the cross, whose one sacrifice of himself, once offered, he took into the holiest place of all—the presence of his Father in heaven. Jesus Christ on the cross is not only a sacrificial victim, he is the one and only High Priest who, raised from the dead, was able to offer the sacrifice of his own Body and Blood for our redemption. His one sacrifice of himself, offered for the remission of the sins of the whole world, means that there is no more need for sin offerings. The sacrificial ordinances of the Old Testament regarding animal sacrifices for sin are done away because their purpose is accomplished. The one, true, all-sufficient sacrifice has been offered forever, and so the author of Hebrews can put this question before us:
"For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13-14).
The answer, of course, is that the Blood of Christ can do (and for the faithful has done) what no animal sacrifice could—cleanse us forever from our sins and give us a new and eternal life in God’s fellowship and service. By his obedient death he has become our great high priest, passing through the heavenly tabernacle, taking his own blood into the most holy place, into the very presence of the Father having made atonement once and for all for our sins. What the blood of bulls and goats spilt over and over on the day of atonement could not do, he has done, for he is both the perfect Sacrificer and perfect Sacrifice.
Friends, only the Sacrifice of Christ’s precious body and blood can make the inner man clean, not merely ritually clean, but the body and the soul, our very consciences which all too often condemn, too often dredge up voices of discouragement and despair which lead to despondency, detachment, and the tyranny of the self. For the unclean conscience is infested with dead works. And let us understand what the preacher of Hebrews means by dead works. He doesn’t intend for us to recall the works of the Old Testament Law, under some legalism vs. grace construct (which is a tendency in much of present day evangelicalism). Rather, by dead works he means sins which defile and pollute the conscience. And these are in direct opposition to ‘good works’ which every Christian is called to perform. The Hebrews preacher writes,
“And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised; And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
To put it succinctly; the ‘good work’ is the opposite of sinning, it’s a life in pursuit of purity in heart. The ‘good work’ is necessary to fulfill the divine command to love. Love and Good Works are two sides of the same coin. Love is the good work and without the good work one cannot love. The rich soil from whence the fruit of love springs forth is faith. Not an abstract faith, an intellectual assent unto an idea or theory, neither is it stern adherence to an ethical code or social contract… it is fida Christus, faith in the Person and work of Christ. It seeks and desires an ever increasing knowledge of and trust in Him, who IS LOVE. We love because He first loved us” confesses the Apostle loved by our Lord. knowing God and being known by God is to be loved and is our capacity to love as well. But first, faith must seek and be found by Him, and having found Him, it compels us to know him, and in the knowledge of Him our Love burns and increases more and more. Hear the beloved Apostle from his first Epistle, “And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”
Now, contrast this with the religious leaders from today’s Gospel who were blinded to Truth, who simply refused to believe to exercise faith in the Son of God, "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?” To which our Lord responds, “I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory; there is one that seeketh and judgeth. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.” The eternal Son of God offers eternal life, and yet they cannot believe: ""Before Abraham was, I am," he claims for himself the "I AM" of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He declares that he is the God of the burning bush and of the commandments who by the incarnation has been made man. Jesus of Nazareth is God, the Eternal Son of the Father in heaven, and because he is the Christ, the promised Messiah come to save the world. On the day that our Lord declared himself to be the God of Abraham, his enemies simply would not believe and thereby refused to love. They sought to kill him by stoning, declaring his Truth a blasphemy. “If I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” Unbelief kills. Faith loves. Without faith, without covenant trust, love cannot abide and certainly cannot grow. Love trusts and is trustworthy. Know it is in whom you believe. Let go of fear, cast aside any and all trepidation in loving Christ… he will not reject nor ridicule, belittle or devalue, for he loves you with an unending and perfect love. Good Friday is all the proof needed to know that this is true.
A proper understanding of Good Friday tells us that the final word on the Lord’s blessed passion isn’t DEATH; far from it! The final word is LOVE. For at Calvary Christ "suffered for sins, the just for the unjust…" Yes, our Lord endured unspeakable pain and sorrow. But St. Peter continues... "that he might bring us to God…” And hear St. Paul... “by the cross, we have been "reconciled in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before the Father holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” And again, by the will of the Father, "we have been sanctified through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The eternal Son of heaven made man gladly obeyed the Father’s will. The Son believed and trusted the Father who had sent him, who sent Him to die for the sins of the world, and not to simply taste death naturally as all men do, but to die a death on Roman Cross. “And having been obedient unto death, he has become a greater and more perfect High Priest.” Jesus passed through the heavenly tabernacle carrying not the blood of bulls and goats, but his own perfect and precious blood. He alone has redeemed you from death by death. His body broken for you, his blood poured out for you. It is glorious. It is lovely. It is good.
Beloved, the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is a journey into sorrow but it is the way that leads to life today, right now, right here because the blood of Christ can purge your consciences of shame and guilt. It is the gateway unto presently living the abundant life: a life that is not your own but as a gift given back to the Giver; life which we completely owe to God; a life that demands our love, our fidelity. It is the means to a life that is filled with promise, a promise of an eternal inheritance in the unshakable kingdom of God, that happy place awaiting all who remain faithful to the Bridegroom, who in chastity and fidelity forsake all else. Therefore, when we contemplate the death of Jesus Christ during this Passiontide, we are also contemplating our life. The more of Christ’s Passion that we share with him, the more life that will be in us. And the best possible use of the next two weeks is that we should become so full of the death of Jesus Christ that each of us will also find ourselves overflowing with the new life that he gives by this one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice of Himself.
In the coming sorrows of Good Friday and the encroaching hopelessness of Holy Saturday, let us hold fast to this truth: Christ is not gone we are not abandoned. Rather, He has entered into the presence of the Father in the holy of holies. And we have entered by faith as well into the place of God’s dwelling, into the joy and certainty of the Divine Life. In the dark days and times of discouragement let us hold fast to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who says,
"Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” Amen.